During a recent trip to the male fragrance section of my neighborhood mall, I was reminded that human beings intuitively use signals to understand their environment and avoid dangers. The steely gray bottles of BOSS and CEO cologne were gone; a signal the titans they represent have fallen out of favor. Alan Greenspan also attacked the titans - he called corporate leaders greedy - at a congressional hearing last July. But Greenspan"s star hasn"t dimmed much. The Federal Reserve chairman has cultivated his "oracle," know-it-all role. Although the Social Security Actuaries have to predict economic growth for 75 years, Greenspan won"t comment on anything beyond two years. He optimistically told the senators our economic growth will be over 3.5 percent, the inflation rate would be a tiny 1.6 percent (unsaid is that we need Saudi Arabia"s cooperation) and forecast rather high jobless rates - 6 percent this year, 5.4 percent the next - but unemployment is good news for those who gain from low wages. Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland reportedly received updates on the stock market"s movement during Greenspan"s testimony in an irritating display of belief that "the market" was "interpreting" substantive news about the economy. But the stock market and the economy have historically shown little relationship. Sarbanes actually knows what Greenspan knows: that Greenspan"s economic analysis is political; it"s all signal, not science. Greenspan"s rhetoric enabled junkie stock analysts addicted to the fantasy that a "new" economy meant non-profitable companies were profitable. Though company stock prices have historically been about 17-20 times company projected earnings - from a low of 5.9 in 1950, under 7 in the 1970s and soared to close to 40 in the 1990s - very few experts warned the bubble was going to burst. What economic news makes real sense? I modestly suggest you can learn a lot from three numbers: business investment rates, the dollar"s value against foreign currency and the ratio of CEO pay to worker"s pay. Business investment is in the doldrums because companies can"t borrow money at good rates. Why? Let"s call what we are going through a crisis of confidence. Lack of confidence creates risk, and lenders want to be paid for the extra risk they take on lending, say, Johnson and Johnson, money by buying a Johnson and Johnson bond. If firms don"t invest, jobs aren"t created, people don"t buy things, leading to a depressing cycle of under consumption. Another lesson: For the first time in over a hundred years, the U.S. depends on foreign investors because we buy more from the world than the world buys from us. We have gotten away with our gluttony because foreigners wanted dollars, not to buy our cars, but to buy the NASDAQ, the Dow and the SP500. No more. They will buy chemical plants in India and Australian wineries and dump the dollar for other currencies. Once that happens, Chinese paperclips, German cars and Taiwanese computers will become really expensive. A lot of CEOs were paid big money, almost 600 times the average worker (in Europe and Japan the ratio maxes at 70 times) to manipulate their share prices. There is a relationship between pay and skill, but, maybe that relationship is not what you think. The person who cares for your baby makes around $6 per hour. Dick Cheney made over $8,000 per hour as CEO of Halliburton Corp., where he allegedly boosted profits with fuzzy math. While Greenspan testified the dollar fell sharply against the Euro. That"s what Sarbanes should have watched - not the Dow.
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